The Trend Towards Early Specialization

Mon Jun 9, 2014 by Milo Bryant

As a member of the TPI Advisory Board, I’ve had the opportunity to assist in the development of the physical fitness component of the TPI Junior program as well as work with some of the best aspiring young athletes across multiple sports. I recently came across the following article by Daniel Coyle who authored “The Talent Code” and it appealed to my sense of doing what's right - and best - for young athletes. I witness and discuss the subject of early specialization on a daily basis due to its unfortunate prevalence in junior golf. I’ve added some of my own, golf specific, comments to his original article. Enjoy.

Hey Parents: Quit Raising Specialists and Start Raising Omnivores

In the glossy heart of the 1980s, in the dimly lit halls of East Anchorage High School there walked a god. He was rangy, blond, and bore the cinematically perfect name of Trace Savage. And Trace Savage was awesome

(Just say it out loud: Trace Savage.)

Trace Savage was awesome partly because he was cool, partly because he was nice, but mostly because he was the best all-around athlete any of us had ever seen: quarterback of the football team, starting forward on the basketball team, and track star. He was living our American sports dream, and the dream of everyone we knew.

Then, in the space of a few years, that dream changed.

Trace Savage used to be the norm. Every high school had several Savages. They were 3-sport athletes during the school year and then played another sport during the summer. There was always one Savage, though, who was a bit more, err, savage than the others. That was the athlete who had to decide on the scholarship - football or baseball, or perhaps basketball or volleyball or track. I wonder if Trace Savage was actually Dave Winfield, who got drafted by four professional teams in three sports after leaving the University of Minnesota. Or maybe Trace Savage was Jim Thorpe, a multiple gold medal winner who played professional football, baseball and basketball.

Maybe it was the rise of superfocused prodigies like Tiger Woods, Andre Agassi, and the Williams sisters. Maybe it was the rise of parenting as a competitive sport. Maybe it was the ESPN-ification of youth sports, which lost its community base and morphed into a free-market bazaar of travel teams, trophies, and tournaments, with each kid (read: parent) seeking the holy grail of success: the college scholarship.

By the time the mid-nineties rolled around Trace Savage had vanished from the landscape like the white rhino. In his place stood a different species: the specialists.

The “specialist” is not a natural species. It is a genetic mutation, constructed by the minds of ill-informed parents or coaches. Reading David Epstein’s “The Sports Gene” will tell you; mutations such as this should take thousands and thousands of years. This one has taken three decades. Powerful mutation.

Every sport became a highly organized year-round enterprise: indoor soccer in winter, hockey in summer, baseball all year round. Suddenly kids had to choose before they turned 10 or so, or risk falling behind the pack. The logic seems straightforward: if you want to be good at a sport, you should play intensively year-round. It makes perfect sense.

It was also, in retrospect, a perfectly bad idea. While early specialization works for a lucky few, an increasingly large wave of research has provided proof that early specialization doesn’t work so well for the rest of us. Let us count the ways:

  1. early specialization increases the chance of injuries.
  2. early specialization creates worse overall athletes (more evidence here).
  3. early specialization makes kids less likely to participate in sports as adults.
  4. early specialization creates a falsely high barrier to participation, eliminating kids who might otherwise succeed in a more open system.

This idea has run rampant in golf where parents or coaches are placing too much pressure or demands on even the youngest athletes. The problem is two-fold:

  • Parents and coaches believe their child or student will be the next great thing.
  • Parents and coaches believe success is only possible with early specialization.

Look at South Korea for one crazy example. By far K.J. Choi and Y.E. Yang are the countries two most successful male golfers. Logic would suggest that if I’m Korean, and I want my son to play on the PGA Tour, I’d look to Choi and Yang as blueprints. Choi, the first Korean to earn a PGA Tour card, was a competitive power lifter as an early teen. He didn’t pick up a golf club until he was 16. Yang, who was a body builder as an early teen, didn’t start playing until he was 19. So, seems to me that powerlifting and bodybuilding are the Korean pathways to the PGA Tour, not 4-year-olds swinging clubs as tall as their foreheads.

I think the bigger point is this: when it comes to athletic skills, we are natural omnivores. Our bodies and brains are built to grow through variety of activities, not just one.

Think about what happens when you play multiple sports. You develop whole-body skills like balance, quickness, core strength. You cross-train skills from one sport to another.

It is not a coincidence that many top performers were multiple-sport kids growing up. Roger Federer played soccer until 12; Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant did the same. The reason they possess such brilliant footwork and vision is because they built those skills, over time, by being omnivorous.

Similarly, Adam Scott, Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia, Hale Irwin and Rickie Fowler are just a few golfers who could have been professionals in other sports.

Most important, multi-sport kids develop a far more useful skill: how to learn. They learn how to adapt to different situations, make connections, and to take true ownership over the improvement process.

I’d also argue that multi-sport kids have a better chance to stay emotionally healthy, because they’re free of the all-the-eggs-in-one-basket pressure that goes with specialization — a pressure that can lead unhealthy patterns when it comes to relationships and emotional stability. (See: Woods, Tiger.) They are free of the sense that, should they fail, they are at risk of losing their identity, and letting down their parents.

There are indeed professional golfers on tour right now I’ve spoken with who are disillusioned and who have lost the simple joy the game once brought them. Some of them can’t remember a time without golf and in some extreme cases, the constant focus on a single activity has led to a resentment towards the game. Sad.

So the real question is, what do you do? How do you nurture a Trace Savage in a Tiger Woods world? Here are three useful approaches, courtesy of Ross Tucker of The Science of Sport, who’s written widelyon the subject.

Delay: wait as long as possible before choosing a single sport to pursue. It varies according to sport, but research puts the ideal age for specialization around the early teenage years.  (That doesn’t mean you start at that age, of course, but rather that you start getting serious.)

We believe that should start at about a biological 15-years old for boys and a bit sooner for girls – because the maturation process for girls is quicker than boys. Play as many sports as possible before that “decision” time. All the decision does is signify which sport is the one the athlete will spend the most time practicing, playing and perfecting.

Diversify: embrace all possibilities to broaden skills. Experiment and cross train.

Jason Zuback and Jamie Sadlowski are two former long-drive champions who both were proficient at … wait for it … badminton! However, their brand of badminton sent shuttlecocks flying in excess of 200mph!

Co-operate: seek ways to build connections between the silos of individual sports, so that families are not forced to choose one over the other too soon.

Because we know other sports will help young golfers, talent identification is a big part of our program. If I see a young athlete, as young as 5, 6, 7 or 8, who throws, sprints, kicks or hits well or has amazing kinesthetic and vestibular awareness, I don’t hesitate to suggest, and encourage, baseball, track and field, softball or martial arts as other sports the child might enjoy.

I’d add one more word: Connect. One of the main reason specialization is hard to resist is the parental peer-pressure that comes with joining any “elite” team. When every other family on the team is skipping school to travel to that “prestigious” out-of-state tournament, it’s awfully hard to say no. So I’d suggest seeking out other parents, kids, and coaches who share the multi-sport view, and working together to create fun, homegrown, omnivorous alternatives.

Yes, I couldn’t agree more. Seek out your closest junior golf program run by one of our many TPI Certified Junior coaches! Don't fall into the trap that early specialization, especially in golf, can create in young, talented athletes.

  • Fanie Roos

    Great Article Milo. I am a sport scientist and PGA Professional and you can back that up with many academic articles!

  • Freddie

    Ok, I have to comment on all sorts of fallacious points here: 1. Tiger is a bad example of early specialization because he actually did play track and baseball. 2. Zubak and sadlowski might have been much better scoring golfers had they specialized sooner. However, let's not forget they're Canadian and couldn't play golf half the year anyway. 3. Koreans- bad example! The lpga is full of Koreans who played nothing but golf from a very early age and are dominating the rest. And let's not forget Chinese 15yo who made the cut at the masters. I don't think he was doing a lot of baseball until age 15. 4. Another fallacy is to confuse correlation with causation. Yes, there are many elite athletes who played multiple sports, but that doesn't prove playing multiple sports made them elite, it might just mean they were very talented athletes! Had michael Jordan not played baseball, I'm quite sure he nonetheless would've been Michael Jordan on the courts.

  • Freddie

    I'm a parent of an exceptional 12yo golfer, a 1hcp. But he's also exceptional at math, not because he's a genius but because I recognized his greatest talent was his passion for mathematics and allowed him (not forced) to have a tutor every summer in math to keep progressing. He'll do calculus in 9th grade. He's top 10 ranked in California and will certainly be able to play Div 1 golf somewhere t this pace, but the question is whether it'll be at a good enough school and what kind of education will it be. I'm concerned by this obsession with sports- something we can all understand because it's visual. Doesn't the author see that what he's really saying when he says "to be the best golfer, play as many sports as possible until 15" is basically saying take on 2-3 additional sports just to get some ephemeral skills that could very well be isolated, ostensibly by people like TPI and save time for hitting the books. America's jails and McDonald's and kinks are full of multi-sport high school athletes, so what? What we as parents need to recognize is that pro sports are not a smart option for probably 99.9% of our kids, and were we to add up all the annual money spent on coaches! equipment! travel to tournaments (1,000's of dollars) trying to get kids a partial scholarship, we'd do better saving that money and paying for the best school. I keep hearing lip service about student athletes, but believe me, nobody who plays 2 sports plus golf is even close to properly educated. And college golfers tend to miss most of their classes due to travel. Serious college golf is for aspiring pros only and of them, many will end up with meaningless bachelor's degrees, working as assistant pros for $20k. I hope my son doesn't decide to be a pro golfer, but I'll support his dreams. I don't really care about the scholarship, just that he gets the best education and that golf at college is about playing the game more than the next level. Bubba Watson had no other option but golf or jiffy lube, so of course he was dedicated. Our kids don't have to be sold this 24/7 sports BS, let's get American kids learning some math and science why don't we? And while I'm on the subject, this article is recommending essentially thousands of hours of extra sports, so it would be nice to base it on something other than conjecture. The links you provide simply link to a website that quotes "research" without any real citations for propositions such as "more sports equal less injuries" and other complete nonsense.

  • John Voigts

    Great article! I wish more parents would take this approach, and encourage juniors to play multiple sports! As always great articles I can refer clients and parents both to read!

  • Jeff Fisher

    In the world of what is best to create an overall athlete staying away from early specialization is absolutely the way to go. But in golf for a lot of players college scholarships are a big goal and the competition for those is starting earlier and earlier. If we wait until 14 or 15 to have kids specialize they may miss out on opportunities at bigger schools that finish their recruiting much earlier in a high school career. Would seem that for this idea to work we need to get the college coaches on board as well as those who own and run junior tours to alleviate some of the play for the younger kids

  • Mike Stanley

    Great article! I get this question a lot in practice and I always encourage parents to let their kids play as many sports as possible. It's going to make the child a better all-around athlete, as well as prevent against burnout if nothing else. From personal experience, I was a four-sport athlete growing up (football, basketball and baseball/golf in the summer) and I loved it. I felt the constant change in demand on my body helped me develop a vast range of skills that some didn't get. It's definitely changing with the times. Most kids in my high school were the same as myself. Now they pick one sport and stay with it. Great article!

  • Anonymous User

    Milo...I am living this right now with my son. I have discussed how being a "triple threat" during my day was the highest honor. Now if you are a "triple threat", you are barely making each team and sitting the bench because you are not a "specialist". Unfortunately, we are now going the route of "specialist" and I am sad for my 13 year old. 😞.

  • Milo Bryant

    Anon, Thanks for taking the time to read and respond! It's appreciated. Is it your 13-year-old's decision to do this? Or is he or the family being pressured to specialize? If it's his decision, I'd make it an educational experience by researching some of the greatest athletes we know about. Odds are amazingly strong that the athletes at the top of the sports your son enjoys played multiple sports in their youth. Watch documentaries about Bo Jackson, Jim Thorpe, Jim Brown, Babe Zaharias and Dave Winfield. Research with him and see what it takes to become phenomenal at his chosen sport. Then see if he can prove he is doing all the things it takes while only doing the one sport. If there is pressure happening, you can talk with the coaches and league (might be like talking to a brick wall though) and have them explain exactly how they are going to help your son become the best athlete possible and the best at the sport. If they don't have a plan - a curriculum - laid out and are able to present it to you, then you can legitimately if they're simply guessing or are throwing crap against the wall hoping something sticks. If your son is playing golf, look in your area for TPI certified professionals. They will have a better understanding of the athlete's maturation process. Find one, and go to that program. If all that fails, move to San Diego and look me up!

  • Anonymous User

    Milo, Would you encourage younger kids (5-10) to work with a teacher in a sport they have interest on limited basis? Just let em play and have fun? Curious your thoughts. Thanks, Rob Rashell

  • Milo Bryant

    Rob, Thanks for reading and taking the time to respond to the article! I appreciate it. The short answer is, "YES!" If your young athlete is in a generalize movement program, when that child reaches a biological 7-years old, then 15 to 30 minutes once a week of private or semi-private instruction is sufficient. The parents of children that age, going through our golf program, are all told about the symbiotic relationship that exists between the general program and the specific. The key is, however, the athlete must be ready. Five and six year olds aren't typically biologically, physiologically or psychologically ready for the fine tuning that often comes with personal attention. So, again, do it. Just do it at the right time and for the right amount of time.

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